Polyarc’s post-E3 mission: Making Moss’s cute VR hero feel real
Polyarc‘s adorable virtual reality adventure Moss stars Quill, an intrepid mouse heroine who fits in the palm of your hand and wields a sword. She embarks on a journey within the pages of a book of fairy tales, and as the Reader, your role is to help her out. You guide her throughout her journey, enabling her to defeat enemies such as beetles, moving parts of the environment to solve puzzles so she can move forward.
Folks got a first look at Quill at the game industry’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) shindig in June, but since then, the only other news has been that its timeline has been pushed back. It was originally slated for a holiday release, and now it will debut in February 2018, though players can order it in advance for PlayStation VR for $30. Polyarc’s been quiet, and it’s because the team has been busy fine-tuning what made the demo a hit.
“E3 was our opportunity to implement, on the developer side, what we considered our vertical slice of the game,” said cofounder and CEO Tam Armstrong in a phone call with GamesBeat. “That was our moment to take everything to a shipping quality level and understand what that would take, to make Moss, as a whole experience, look like that and play like that.”
Armstrong says that they have an internal “alpha” version, and they’re working on getting everything up to the quality of the demo they’ve been showcasing at events. Ensuring high quality is just one of the reasons why they decided to push back the release schedule.
“No. 1, there’s a lot of pressure around the holidays,” said Armstrong. “We’re cognizant of some of the very cool and big efforts that are going to go into launching product around that time. And so we think we can be in a good position to be available to new users after that happens. And we really want to make sure we deliver a good value. We want to make sure that what we make and what we charge for it feels like we’re being respectful of our players.”
The Moss demo featured the intuitive controls. Everything unfolds before you like a diorama, so you’re not forced to move around the landscape in an ungainly way. It felt natural and easy to simply reach out and grab parts of stone to move them around. You could also pick up Quill and feel her heartbeat through the controller, as though she were an actual breathing being.
Polyarc strove to preserve all of these details later on its development cycle. Art director Chris Alderson says that they wanted to keep the controls and mechanics just as accessible even as players progress. Some games add on more skills and abilities as they go on; but Alderson says they wanted to prevent the controls from becoming too unwieldy.
“You shouldn’t expect to see the game get dramatically more complicated,” said Alderson. “It should just really express all the different possibilities of the set of mechanics that was hinted at in the demo. There’s more than the single beetle character you encountered in the demo. There’s definitely more stuff. But we’re trying hard to make sure nobody would ever use ‘complicated’ as a word to describe it.”
To make interactions simpler, Armstrong says they have a system that’s similar to aim assist in first-person shooters, which locks on enemy targets to make it easier to shoot them. In Moss, players can’t move to the objects they want to grab because they stay in one fixed position. This can be tricky when they need to interact with their surroundings, such as moving pieces around to solve a puzzle. Polyarc’s system helps them grab parts of the environment even when their aim isn’t perfect.
“We have systems like that now that make reaching out and interacting with things in a reasonable way possible,” said Armstrong. “All of that’s designed around the fact that we have this constraint, which we really like. We believe that constraints breed creativity. There are some wonderful things happening. But it’s definitely a challenge to think that way.”
Keeping the feelings alive
The Polyarc team also found that the player’s relationship with Quill also required some upkeep. One of the magical things about the demo is the emotional bond you develop with her. She reacts to you as though you’re in the room with her, making eye contact and gesturing impatiently if you’re taking too long on a puzzle. The communication there feels even more real in a VR setting.
“We actually, very truthfully—we have to do work to make sure you stay involved with her and she acknowledges you,” said Armstrong. “That’s the baseline. That’s the thing that keeps you connected in the way we established it. To go beyond it, we have to be mindful of the mood of the story, the mood of the game and her experiences in that, and do our best to represent that through her behavior, through the music and the setting and everything.”
Alderson added, “Quill has an emotional arc, a story arc—we want you as the player, as the reader, to go on a journey with her. That means making you feel the highs and lows that she’s feeling. We kind of strengthen that bond throughout the entire story.”
VR has had a couple of success stories so far, such as Schell Games’ I Expect You to Die and Owlchemy Labs’ Job Simulator. Soon we’ll also get The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim in VR along with Fallout 4 VR and Doom VFR.
Armstrong says that the initial wave of VR games were focused on solving technical problems, such as those of mechanics. Now, however, developers are moving on to the next step.
“There’s a good set of solutions there now. Maybe not the final answers, but a good set of solutions,” said Armstrong. “So yeah, I think we and other developers are now moving on to the next step, which is — now that we can make things work, how do we bring emotion and entertainment fully into it in a way that’s unique to VR? I think that’s just beginning for everyone, us included.”
Games like Ovosonico’s Last Day of June and Funomena’s Luna seek to evoke emotions and atmosphere as opposed to purely playing with the kind of actions players can take in VR. And Moss, of course, is all about the real friendship you can develop with a small imaginary friend named Quill.
“The glorious thing here is, we’re trying to emulate an altered version of real life,” said Armstrong. “All the subtlety and complexity and nuance of that is, at least aspirationally, required to get you across that line to feel like that’s real, feel like Quill’s real, and feel like your relationship is real.”